Wednesday, May 6, 2009
WINDOW ON A LOST WORLD
Once upon a time, annual holidays to one’s native place were not confined to domestic servants or labourers. Everybody had roots outside the city to which they returned year after year for nourishment and renewal.
Our own roots were in a village on the Gujarat shore. The bungalow had been built by grandfather soon after the First World War. Merchants of Bombay constructed summer cottages on the coast within the easy distance of the city where families could escape the pre-monsoon heat and where convenient trains deposited them for weekends.
Tongas awaited passengers at the station. The long dusty journey to the village was an endurance test. Sea View Cottage included three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The thunder-boxes were reserved for the sick, very young and very old. Everybody else used the privy at the far end of the corridor. “Bedrooms” was a misnomer. There were beds and wall-cupboards, but no privacy whatsoever. Designed for the summer pleasure of a joint family, the house overflowed with friends and relatives. At night, mattresses were unloaded from beds and spread on the floor. Then began the “goodnights”. To the children it was a game. Their goodnight calls to just about every person or pet they had ever known echoed from room to room.
My own special place was the room at the top. Breakers crashed in the distance but within my peaceful room only the swish of swaying palms and sweet scents from the garden pervaded. Savouring the heavenly quiet after the bedlam downstairs, I would reach for my treasures. There was Daddy Long Legs rubbing shoulders with Rider Haggard. The Scarlet Pimpernel leaning on The Three Musketeers. Sherlock Holmes looking down his long nose at Marie Corelli. All the fantasy worlds of a twelve-year-old.
The women of the house took equal delight in the easy, happy life, free of the rigidities of customs which bound them in the city. News of our arrival had spread. Old friends from the village brought the morning milk in shiny brass vessels, warm and foaming from the cow. Fisherwomen arrived with catch so fresh that some fish were still jumping in the baskets. Then followed a consultation with the cook. Menu decided, we all left for the beach. Meanwhile, a huge copper cauldron fed by dried coconut fronds and husks heated the bath water. One bucket was deemed sufficient to wash away the brine and sand.
Summer is synonymous with mangoes. Our orchard produced the luscious Alphonso. The major portion was parcelled to the city for sale. Mangoes for home consumption were entrusted to us. We children laid out straw on the floor of unused rooms and bedded the mangoes in even rows to mature from pinkish green to golden yellow. The fragrant perfume of ripening mangoes pervaded the house. Daily we selected the ripest and the best for meals. Unlike the exotic Alphonso, roasted gram was homely fare. Tradition decreed that during our visit gram should be distributed to village children on Friday mornings. A stream of them would wend their way into the compound and wait beside the swing. My brother became the policeman. He enforced the queue and ensured that the tiniest ones had a place in the sun. We joined the queue with the rest. The channawala would appear with stand folded under his arm and a basket of roasted gram on his head. An elder came from the house to supervise the distribution. Each child held out his white Gandhi cap or frock apron, into which was poured a measure of gram.
Mid-day on the verandah was toddy time. When the men arrived on weekends they looked forward to the heady fragrant brew, tapped from date palms. Neera, the juice collected at dawn, was so sweet and mild children drank it like lemonade. The same toddy warmed by the sun a few hours later fermented into a powerful drink. The type of brew served separated the men from the boys.
Once, a cousin, beguiled by the fruity aroma and deceptive mildness of the toddy, imbibed too freely. We thought he had disappeared to sleep it off. A piercing shriek set us running. He lay on the pebbled walk almost hidden by a sheet and writhing with the agony of a broken arm. He had jumped from the window, arms flapping, sheets trailing, in an attempt to fly like Peter Pan. Toddy had blurred the line between reality and fantasy. Bullocks were harnessed, the cart cushioned with mattress on straw and Danesh and Dad were driven to the bone-setter three miles away.
One day we came home from the beach bursting with news. “Ma, there’s a dead whale on the beach. It’s like a huge grey mountain on the sand. The fishermen say it must have been washed ashore during the night. People are coming in hundreds to see it.” True enough, the beach was swarming with villagers. They appeared bearing marigolds, fruit, vermillion powder, coconuts and tiny oil lamps. By evening the behemoth was a weird sight. Festooned with flowers and flickering lamps it resembled a sacrificial offering.
The images which comfort my soul in the evening of my life are those which money cannot buy. Of sun and sand and deserted beaches, the sparkling cascade of a water-wheel as it turns and falls in its perpetual cycle over the well, the sweet scents of a jasmine garden, and above all, the silence and solitude which has totally disappeared from our lives today. We are the poorer for all our progress.